Why Peppers are Hot —and Might Just Save Your Life

Why are chili peppers so spicy? Is hot sauce good for you? There’s a surprising reason why peppers are so tantalizingly hot and healthy.

spicy peppers are good for dental health

Photo by Liz West via Flickr

Some people just cannot get their food to be spicy enough. Others, on the other hand, can barely stand even the smallest hint of heat on their plate. But whether or not you like to eat spicy food, you might want to start using hot sauce just for the health benefits. The science behind why peppers are spicy and how the can improve your health may just change the way you look at (and eat) hot and spicy chillies.

Why are peppers spicy?

Spicy peppers are an evolutionary conundrum.

Within nature, there are bright fragrant plants that practically scream “Eat me, I’m good for you!” to animals. Others are fuzzy, sticky, thorny, or unappealing in some way as if to say “Stay away!”. But with peppers, it’s as if they don’t make sense in an evolutionary respect because they are both attractive yet contain a taste that should deter mammals from eating them. So what’s the deal with that?

As it turns out, it wasn’t just a mix up by Mother Nature. The culprit behind that burning sensation from your favorite hot sauce comes from the compound capsaicin. It’s a flavorless, odorless substance found on the inside flesh of peppers. Mammals experience the spicy sensation when the chemical binds to receptors that are made to respond to pain and heat in the throat and mouth. This tricks the brain into thinking that your mouth is basically on fire, causing your body to fight the “heat” by boosting your metabolism (increasing circulation) and cooling via perspiration.

The kicker: mammals have capsaicin receptors, and birds do not.

Are birds simply cursed because they will never feel the spicy pleasure of Mexican food? Not exactly. Curious as to why birds don’t have receptors for capsaicin, Researcher and professor Josh Tewksbury studied how mammals and birds alike interacted with peppers and stumbled upon some interesting results. As it turns out, mammals tend to avoid peppers while birds gorge on them. When mammals like rodents consume peppers, the seeds eaten by them were crushed, broken, and not fertile after digestion. Birds on the other hand, left their droppings in places that were ideal for the pepper seeds to grow. So, it’s an interesting evolutionary adaption.

Why is spicy food healthy?

Although the capsaicin is supposed to deter mammals from consuming peppers, humans have been using them in their foods for thousands of years. Hot peppers have been used as preservatives, holistic medicine, and, of course, to enhance the taste of food. There are a variety of healthy compounds in peppers, including:

  • Capsaicin
    On top of being “hot,” capsaicin has been shown to be anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-diabetic.

  • Vitamins
    Peppers are a rich source of vitamin C. They also contain antioxidants like vitamin A and also B-complex vitamins like vitamin B-6 and B-1.

  • Minerals
    Chillies also have a good amount of minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, and manganese.

Benefits of eating Hot Food:

Believe it or not, adding some hot sauce to your meal can make a world of difference to your health and well-being.

Weight loss

More recently, scientist have learned more about the link between fat loss and thermogenesis (when you inner thermostat is turned up a few degrees.) It’s thought that when your core temperature increases at a meal, your body will continue to burn calories and fat even after you’re done eating. Although there is currently only a little evidence to prove it, eating spicy food can still help with better eating habits. Putting hot sauce on your food will make you eat slower, consume less, and boost metabolism, which could help you lose weight.

Cancer fighting

The capsaicin found in chillies can actually kill cancer cells, according to a study by Nottingham University. In fact, researchers found that the same compound that makes food spicy actually targets and kills cancer cells —without harming surrounding healthy cells. In the experiment, capsaicin killed lab-grown cancer cells by attacking the tumor cells source of energy, triggering cell-suicide, According to Dr. Timothy Bates who led this study, this finding could lead to a drug that could kill tumors with few or no side effects to the patient.

Longer Lifespan

A 2015 study in China found the eating chili-rich, spicy foods was linked to a lower risk of death from certain diseases, like ischemic heart diseases, respiratory diseases, and even cancer. They also found that eating fresh chilis had an even stronger protective effect against death from those diseases.

Release Endorphins

Hot food doesn’t just make your nose drip and eyes water from the heat —just think of them as tears of joy. The pain from the “fire” in your mouth causes your brain to release endorphins and increase serotonin levels, flooding you with good vibes and a happier temperament.

Boosting Stomach Health

Putting hot sauce on your food can actually help your digestive system. When the spiciness reaches your stomach, it stimulates the cells in your stomach lining to produce more of the compounds that protect it from the acid that breaks down food. Also, hot foods can kill the bacteria that cause bowel disorders.

Is hot sauce bad for my teeth?

Now you know all the ways that spicy food is good for your health. But what about your teeth?

One way that hot food can be bad for your teeth is in the form of hot sauce. Peppers may not be bad per say, but sauces bought at the grocery store can contain high amounts of acid and even sugar, which are the culprits of tooth decay. If damaging your teeth is a concern, it’s best to read the labels before your purchase hot sauce, checking to see how much added sugar and acidic ingredients (like tomatoes or lemon) are in its contents. But really, as long as you’re not drinking hot sauce by the cupful and swishing it around your mouth, you’re probably fine. Those who eat hot sauce or peppers with meals tend to drink more water with food, which helps to rinse away enamel damaging compounds off of teeth.

Still, you should never be too careful when it comes to dental health. Although you don’t necessarily have to worry about hot sauce consumption when it comes to the state of your teeth, it is important to keep up with regular check-ups and cleaning at your dentist.

Really, the pros far outway to cons of eating spicy peppers. So do you think the health benefits are worth dousing your food in hot sauce? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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